Universities should not wait for another crisis to push towards building a future that society needs

02-11-21 USAf 0 comment

Dr Bernadette Johnson, Director: Transformation and Employment Equity at the University of the Witwatersrand, who also commented on Professor Chris Brink’s edited book, The Responsive University and the Crisis in South Africa, lauded Professor Brink and other contributing authors, saying she had found the book rich and provocative.

As the last respondent to Brink’s input during The Responsive University breakaway session of Universities South Africa’s Transformation Strategy Group, which was part of the recent USAf’s 2nd Higher Education Conference (6-8 October), her response was premised on the last question that Professor Brink poses in the book: “After the CoViD-19 crisis, will we continue on a trajectory of responsiveness, or will we relapse into our earlier complacency…?”

Dr Johnson (left) said this was among concerns that probably keep many in the sector awake at night.

“I think we realised during the pandemic experience, that we acted, invented, responded and innovated; we showed society the relevance of the academy.

“And, at the same time, it is interesting how we are also not sure, given the divisiveness in our society (which is manifested through all forms of discrimination), that the university has legitimacy across the globe,” she said, adding that the idea of distrust towards the university was evident.

Be that as it may, she said she wondered whether universities had gained a greater sense of legitimacy, given the contribution of science during CoViD-19. “Yet, even in this great appreciation, there is also recognition that much more work still needs to be done,” she said.

Furthermore, Dr Johnson said the book had made it apparent that universities cannot continuously define themselves outside of society.

She said universities had tipped the scale in favour of excellence and global rankings. And through this process, [may] have lost sight of the local and regional societal challenges. Dr Johnson admitted that the book served as a reminder of the importance of place and context –examining the location of the university and thereby finding its connection with society.

She however expressed satisfaction that the importance of the connection of society to universities, remained central to the book narrative, throughout Parts One and Two.

On the collapse of the social contract between the university and its societies, Dr Johnson said she believed this notion was well-founded and substantiated in the book. “To me, it appears like a tremendous challenge to re-establish the social contract,” she said.

Using the case study of the University of Lincoln, as presented by Professor Stuart, she said it displayed powerful examples of how this can be and still raised questions about whether civic agreements were the localised forms of societal or social contracts.

Dr Johnson said she wondered if this were possible for South Africa.

“I wonder whether we need to be thinking about building the connection with the university from the bottom up – from communities within different locations around the university,” she said. Her concern was that universities are diverse, fractured, in conflict, and at times, feel unsafe.

Explaining the challenges of diversity, Dr Johnson described her residential area of mixed-class, mixed-race inhabitants, including a significant refugee community. She said this represents the real-life situation with which universities grapple. How, then, are universities meant to find coherence, bridging differences and potential conflicts in its constituent communities? “What might be the building and binding cement across such diverse communities? Could it be that in some instances, some communities are far too different, that coherence becomes unattainable?” she asked.

“So, the point I am making is that we do not assume that engaging with communities will be easy or that communities are necessarily safe or free spaces,” she said. “We know, in the South African context, that movements, NGOs, grassroots organisations have been demobilised and decimated. Perhaps communities also need to take responsibility. It is not just us, as academics, who have academic freedoms and academic responsibility.” At the same time, she also admitted that “…as communities with freedom, we need to take responsibility for building these communities. Perhaps, individually and collectively, it is our part to do so,” she said.

Wrapping up, Dr Johnson said her only wish and plea were that they would be able to push ahead under their [university sector] leadership. “What our leadership has shown are emerging alternative practices around community engagement, translating to responsiveness,” she said.

In addition, she hoped that the sector would not wait for another crisis to give them further impetus; but instead, that universities would start building now towards the future their societies need the most.

Closing remarks from Professor Brink

As the book launch was nearing closure, Professor Brink also commented on the inputs of his three respondents.

First, he congratulated Professor Stuart on the successes of her institution, crediting much of this success to the leadership of Professor Stuart, which had spanned 12 years. “Success was not automatic at Lincoln… it took a lot of leadership,” he said.

To Dr Rakgogo, he said, as a retiree, he would not have dared give the examples that Rakgogo had brought up. Adding that, in part, the purpose of his book was advocacy, Professor Brink agreed with Rakgogo’s proposed models and said he had found them powerful. He said similarly, his book was trying to push, cajole and advocate that it would be to universities’ advantage in South Africa and elsewhere, to be more responsive to the needs of civil society.

Professor Brink also concurred with the views of Dr Johnson that universities’ response to CoViD-19 had shown academia in South Africa and globally at its best. The pandemic had shown that academia could be quick.

“You do not necessarily have to have committee meetings for two years to get something done. Something had to be done when the CoViD struck, and it was done within a matter of days and weeks. Suddenly, academics were once again seen as people who were worth consulting. People whose opinion meant something. People whose inputs were worth considering in policymaking and decision making of huge importance affecting lives all over the country.”

The South African-born mathematician said, “if there was any silver lining to that CoViD pandemic for academia, it is that it somehow gave us a new chance to establish legitimacy.”

Notwithstanding, one question remained: “What is next? Are we just going to sit back and relax and say, ‘it is back to normal’, or will we continue on that trajectory.” In conclusion, he said he hoped it would be the latter.

As Mathematics Professor in South Africa many years ago, Chris Brink (left) held the prestigious A-rating of the National Research Foundation, which ranked him as one of South Africa’s leading scientists. Beyond his teaching years he has held positions including Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research) of the University of Wollongong in Australia from 1999-2001; served as Rector and ViceChancellor of Stellenbosch University in South Africa 2002-07 and as Vice-Chancellor (President) of Newcastle University in the UK from 2007 to 2016. He currently serves on the University Grants Committee in Hong Kong, where he chairs the implementation of the sector-wide 2020 Research Assessment Exercise.

The Responsive Session of USAf’s Transformation Strategy Group marked a pivotal moment of USAf’s The Engaged University Conference. During this session, delegates were let in on the thought leadership behind — not just the conference theme but also some of the priorities of USAf’s TSG. The book, The Responsive University and the Crisis in South Africa, deepens the arguments that Professor Brink made in its 2018 prequel, The Soul of a UniversityWhy Excellence is Not Enough. Professor Brink was one of the keynote speakers at USAf’s first Higher Education conference in 2019.

His thoughts have found resonance in two of the TSG priorities, namely the reconstruction of institutional culture by focussing on the design of universities around our students and staff, with emphasis on residences and the curriculum, and building models of universities that are seriously engaged in the local context in which they find themselves. The TSG is also concerned about the wellbeing of people with disabilities in higher education with a view to improving responses. It aims to positively influence responses to gender-based violence; and the inequalities highlighted by CoViD-19.

In addition to The Responsive University, the TSG also dedicated two other breakaway sessions to The Engaged University and Transformation, and Student-Centred Universities.

The writer, Nqobile Tembe, is a Communication Consultant contracted to Universities South Africa.